Monday, March 14, 2011

Battle for Box Office Bucks

On the night of February 24/25'th, 1942, antiaircraft batteries in Los Angeles opened fire on what they thought was a Japanese attack force over the skies of the city. In the end, nothing was shot down, and the military discounted the entire incident as a false alarm, declaring that the target in question had been a "weather balloon." The incident is known today as the "Battle of Los Angeles." Many who have studied the event question whether there was a government cover-up, as the weather balloon theory didn't quite make sense. Still others hypothesized that the unidentified aircraft was extraterrestrial in nature, and if so, wondered as to the craft's purpose. Now, almost seventy years later, we're presented with one possibility, that of alien invasion. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman, Battle: Los Angeles's trailers promised explosions, lots of gunfire and excitement when I witnessed them last year. After being disenfranchised with the unmitigated crap that was Skyline, anything that would bring back the quality of the genre to the level of, say, Independence Day, was welcome. I'd been waiting to see this film for months, and being able to see it opening day was a treat I wasn't going to squander.

Awww, he just wants to say hello! With weapons.
Veteran actor Aaron Eckhart plays USMC Staff Sergeant Nantz, a veteran marine who, true to form, is getting too old for this shit. His career marred by an ugly mission in which most of the men under his command died, Nantz is now stateside in Los Angeles, training new recruits. Now, having just turned in his resignation, Nantz is ready to go on to the next stage of his life when meteor showers start crashing down near every major coastal city around the globe. The military realizes almost too late that the meteors are an alien invasion force, and Nantz finds himself pressed back into service as the human race is set upon by a relentless foe who wants nothing more than our total extermination.

Michelle Rodriguez plays against type as a tough chick... oh, wait...
The film definitely delivers when it comes to action. The designs of the alien invaders and the chaos they bring upon the city is beautiful to behold, thanks in large part to the Brothers Strause (who make for lousy directors but sure can create great effects). The alien creatures are meticulously detailed and move realistically, even if they come off as expendable shock troops. You get chills every time they appear on screen, so effective is their use. It's a shame that the immersion is damaged by the director's insistence on using what you might call "shaky cam." Every time a tense moment comes upon us, the shaky cam comes in to make the battle sequences appear even more chaotic than it already is. Even worse are the close-ups, which render any attempt to discern what's happening on the screen fruitless. This is especially true during a particularly frenetic scene on the Santa Monica Freeway, in which almost half the soldiers in the story are killed off but we don't know what happened until afterward. The shaky cam is by far my biggest condemnation of the film, as it's both lazy and inefficient to telling the story.

By all means, now is the perfect time for ALL military forces to be in the air!
Character also doesn't get much attention here, though that's just about par for any story told from a military standpoint. Eckhart is perfectly cast as the grizzled veteran, and after this film I wouldn't be surprised to see the actor who usually goes for more dramatic films make an action or thriller run a la Liam Neeson. Still, his character is the veteran soldier whose body isn't able to take the soldier life anymore, a character played by dozens of actors over the course of Hollywood history. Name a war film, and that character appears SOMEWHERE. Beyond Eckhart, lesser actors play no less cliched roles. The fresh out of officer training Lieutenant (Ramon Rodriguez) with a pregnant wife at home? Check. The one getting married in a few weeks (R&B musician Ne-Yo)? Check. Guy suffering from P.T.S.D. (Jim Parrack)? Check. Soldier with an annoying New York accent (Will Rothaar)? Check. Token female soldier (Michelle Rodriguez)? Rookie (Noel Fisher)? Check, check. Guy (Cory Hardrict) with a dead soldier brother who just happened to perish on Nantz's ill-fated mission? BIG check! Half a dozen cases of cannon fodder later and you've got a ready-to-film military unit. That's not to say that they're not good actors, just that they don't have much to work with. It's a big disappointment when the best character you have is a Navy Corpsman from Nigeria studying to become a doctor (Adetokumboh M'Cormack, best known as Mr. Eko's brother on Lost) but you don't DO anything with that. Civilians also get a bum rap as characters played by great actors like Michael Pena and Bridget Moynahan are given little to do and are ditched at the earliest possible opportunity. That said, it's amazing how much I felt connected with the few characters allowed to do anything, even if it's just caring whether or not they died. The conversations between the characters feel real and honest, fostering that bridge. Even if the characters themselves aren't original, it's nice that they can interact with each other and their environments believably. Also, it's nice to see such a multicultural cast, especially since Hollywood was rightfully lambasted last year when so few films featured minorities and even fewer were actually promoted.

Look for next year's sequel: Battle: Cedar Rapids
The film draws from a number of sources, not the least being Black Hawk Down and Independence Day. ID4 in fact was such an obvious influence that you can visually realize where Liebesman re-shot a scene that matches one from the older sci-fi film. And in a late-film speech, I half expected Eckhart to pull a Bill Pullman and rally his soldiers by shouting "...This is our Independence Day!" Battle: Los Angeles shares many of the weaknesses from these aforementioned films, including poor character development and an over-reliance on special effects. On the other hand, it also shares in their strengths, never disappointing in the action department and being exciting to watch throughout. It delivered on all that was promised, and for that it pops in at #3 for 2011. It may have its flaws, but Battle: Los Angeles is a guilty pleasure, a popcorn film that you HAVE to see on the big screen.

1 comment:

Sam said...

You know, that was the all-around best review of this movie I've read anywhere! Congratulations!